Personal Work to Paying Assignments: Michel Leroy’s Rally Bikers Project

By David Walker

© Michel Leroy
Harley Road King riders Jeannett and Bill

When New York City-based photographer Michel Leroy was trying to transition from assisting, he struggled to get clients excited about his portfolio. “My work showed technical prowess,” but that wasn’t quite enough to get the kind of national advertising and editorial work he was looking for. “Clients need to know that you can perform technically but they want to know you have passion.” 

Everything changed after Leroy took a summer off to photograph bikers in a portable studio at motorcycle rallies at Sturgis, South Dakota, and other places out west. The resulting portraits “capture that moment just after we meet” and highlight the veneer of biker identity, with all its patches, leather, tattoos and weekend renegade posturing. After shooting 1,143 subjects, Leroy self-published Rally Bikers, a book featuring 63 of the portraits, and began showing it along with his portfolio to art buyers, art directors and photo editors. 

The phone started ringing, he says. Over the past year, he’s shot covers for The American Lawyer and Corporate Counsel magazines, key art for multiple Food Network shows, and a Lenovo campaign that ran at the end of last summer. 

“[Leroy] showed his commercial portfolio but I fell in love with his biker work, which I felt had a lot of attitude and soul,” says Digitas VP and Director of Art Production Lisa Oropallo, who met Leroy at the NYC Fotoworks portfolio reviews in 2012 and invited him soon afterwards to bid on the Lenovo campaign. 

Leroy says he decided to take a summer off to shoot the rally bikers project because the client work he was getting at the time wasn’t giving him much creative satisfaction. He also wanted more work in general. Having observed photographers he’d assisted, “I saw their success from personal work,” Leroy says. So he started looking around for “something to sink my teeth into.” 

He had grown up in Montana, where bikers flock in the summer because of reliably good weather. Of the biker rallies, he says, “Visually they’re like candy, like going to a country fair.” 

So he went back to Montana and spent a summer driving around to various rallies in a borrowed truck. The bikers self-segregate by types of motorcycles they ride, as well as by age, race and class. “They all go to different kinds of rallies,” Leroy says, and he wanted portraits of all types. 

He decided not to photograph bikers against a white backdrop, a la Richard Avedon: “Too cliché,” he says. Instead he photographed his subjects inside a white 10 x 10-foot pop-up tent of the type photographers often use on location for craft service and gear storage. “It’s like you’re inside a softbox. With the sun at the back of the tent, it’s exquisite, luminescent light inside,” Leroy says. 

In addition to the sunlight diffusing through the tent walls, Leroy used “just a bare bulb” strobe light powered by a Profoto Pro 7b power pack. 

“The sun gave me f/8, and a half stop under that I put [in] the fill light,” he says, explaining that the hard light of the flash made the bikers’ leather, buckles and tattoos pop out. 

He shot fast, moving subjects in and out of the tent within a few minutes. Not only do bikers lack patience, he says, but he was trying to capture whatever persona they presented naturally to a stranger before the self-consciousness of being in front of a camera had time to set in. 

At first, he says, bikers and rally organizers were skeptical about his project. But once they started seeing the pictures, Leroy had no trouble finding willing subjects. Many posed for individual portraits, but couples and a few groups posed as well. 

Leroy self-published his book using MagCloud (which recently merged with Blurb). His first print run was 30 copies, at $17 each. He’s since ordered two additional print runs, he says. He’s been showing them along with his portfolio, and the response has been positive. 

Oropallo asked him to bid for a print and web video campaign for Lenovo computer tablets. Agency art directors wanted visual consistency across the entire campaign, and they wanted Leroy’s Rally Bikers style. 

“It was [a case of being in] the right place, at the right time, with the right work,” Leroy says. 

The brief called for a campaign that appealed to millennials by looking as if the pictures had been shot casually for Instagram. Leroy says the biggest challenge was to replicate the lighting of the rally bikers project in the ads, which also had to look like the models were lit by their tablet screens. 

He prefers to keep his lighting setups “really simple and really large,” so the lighting is consistent over a larger area, allowing for more spontaneity and movement by his models while he’s shooting. “I don’t want to waste time and energy [with the lights] while I’m shooting,” he says. 

For the Lenovo campaign, he had to use harder lighting than sunlight diffused through a pop-up tent, because the Lenovo models wore softer clothing than the bikers, without all the buckles and leather. 

To replicate the Rally Bikers lighting for the video shoots, he shot in a studio with a cyc wall and four 18K HMI Fresnel lights—“an enormous amount of power,” he says. He also used a trick he learned from photographer and lighting director Jonathan Orenstein: Instead of using the cyc wall as a seamless background for the shoot, he used it as a giant reflector. 

“The wall is the light source—and it’s big and powerful. It gives the images clarity and sparkle,” Leroy says. 

To get the same lighting effects for the still photographs, he needed even more light than the HMI lights provided in order to eliminate motion blur. So he used strobes with Profoto Pro-8a power packs, which provided both the high power and short duration he needed to freeze the action. 

The agency street-cast the talent for a “real people” look, and Leroy used the same approach he used with the bikers, bringing the talent on set and shooting quickly. “I didn’t bore them with long explanations. I gave little information—just simple instructions like, ‘Pretend you’re sitting with the tablet talking to one of your friends,’” he says. “I know I have them for five minutes before they get stale, so I’m going to be done in four minutes.” 

The Lenovo campaign ran worldwide in late summer and early fall 2013. 

Several other clients have also hired Leroy on the strength of the rally bikers project. The look and feel of the biker portraits doesn’t translate directly to every job. For example, it isn’t appropriate to photograph lawyers the same way he photographed the bikers, he says. But Leroy is happy to have found a gratifying personal project that has opened up commercial opportunities.

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